In a previous post, I shared that despite this Morning Buzz contribution, I’m actually no longer a local government employee. In 2021 I, like many others, made the very difficult decision to leave the public sector for a time and gain a new perspective.
It has been 11 months and 13 days since making this switch, and while this job demands far more from me than anything I’d ever experienced, I don’t regret one second of stepping away. I think leaving the public sector has made me a better community leader and, one day, will make me a better public servant once again.
I have learned the hard way that so much of the challenge local government leaders experience is that they (“we”) are often out building community with a public sector-centric perspective. We’re really good at innovative public outreach. We’re really good at using state-of-the-art theory to inform innovative strategies. We have the punchiest Council presentations, and the brightest stars joining the ranks. And yet, none of this helps to explain why Brian’s Autoshop went out of business, or the local sheltering nonprofit can’t meet the needs of the wave of displaced community members at their door. We might be able to point to the overlapping ways Wicked Problems contributed, but without lived experience, we don’t actually know.
This sentiment rings true for me even in my new(ish) role. At a recent Council meeting I attended, a community member asked me rather harshly – “Director of Business Advocacy, huh? Have you ever actually led a business?” He implied, as he does, that I would be useless in this role without ever having actually run a business. Was it rude? 100%. But his point struck something deep within me – I haven’t. How could I actually know? How could I actually understand the impacts of our local government’s work, or my advocacy supporting local business, without that lived experience? It doesn’t mean I can’t be good at my job – I am good at what I do. But recognizing this limitation means acknowledging I have blind spots. It means recognizing that I have to go out of my way to remember that I don’t know, and act accordingly. It means walking in humility with caution, letting those who do know lead the way.
The most effectual public servants I know inherently understand this. They’ve either come to the public sector with that experience, they’ve stepped away and come back, or they’re exceptionally empathetic and not only believe the perspective others provide them, but act on those lived experiences rather than their assumptions. This realization has profoundly changed the way I view the work of our public servants. I’m both proud of their courage, and also critical of any assumption that isn’t informed by intentionally addressing these blind spots.
Someday, I will write another ELGL Morning Buzz as a public employee. But today, I am thoroughly reveling in the knowledge that my plan to gain new perspectives is paying off in spades. And if, in the meantime, I can pass that inspiration on to folks who are committed to remaining and doing better in local government, that’s the cherry on top of it all.